Starting a church is no small thing. It can be simple or complex. It can involve a few people or a few hundred. It can be lots of things. But spiritually, it’s not small.
In some ways, starting a church is like ordaining a leader or carrying out a baptism: both involve simple physical acts, which can each occur in a brief moment, but the spiritual gravitas embodied by the act is far greater than the act itself and has far longer implications. So too does starting a church.
What Do I Do First?
If the first post of this blog series led you to believe that you started a church, the goal of this post is to help you know what to focus on. There can seem like a dozen tasks in a new church’s early days, and each can seem equally important. Hopefully I can help you breathe a little easier!
For context, I have been involved with four church plants over 20 years: one was a new gathering in an existing mainstream denomination church; one was a standard “launch” model plant from another church; two have started more from a missional community model. My church sent out four plants in the past decade, and I have overseen dozens of planters through a church planting residency.
I’ve learned a lot from each of these experiences (many the hard way), and thus want to suggest six priorities for you as you start a new church.
- Pray—a lot: The church you planted isn’t yours; it’s God’s. This may be the hardest lesson for church leaders to remember, not just in your earliest days but always. Amidst all the pressure to make the right decisions, meet with people, get logistics and plans figured out on everything—stop. Pray. Before Jesus sent His disciples to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8), He told them not to go, but rather to stop and wait…for His Spirit (Acts 1:4). Only when His Spirit led the way did the disciples go, in God’s power and by God’s leading. Let’s follow their example!
- Define terms: Many church planting strategies focus on a mission statement. This is a helpful rallying cry, but often people want to know, “How will this look?” more than knowing the big, often-vague banner statement. So love people well by defining as clearly as possible things like “discipleship” and “mission.” (What is each and how will you pursue it?) Explain what a church gathering is and why it is important; explain identities (who your church and its members are because of who God is and what He’s done), values and priorities (why you do what you do), and practices (what you pursue, together). And so on. Even better, form those things with some input from the core team who has started gathering together.
- Set clear expectations: It’s more common than you might think that a leader thinks they’ve started a church, but others are unaware. As seen in the previous post, a church is different than just any group—so defining your group as a church changes things. But it’s better to tell them early on, even if some decide not to journey with you, than to keep it a secret! Also tell folks clearly what’s expected of them: what does involvement look like? Is tithing required? What will you do with kids? What are leaders’ roles and authority in peoples’ lives? These are common questions you’d be wise to answer. Forming something like a one-year “core team commitment” can help set clear expectations, while both allowing you to be honest about your capacity and the newness of the church, as well as giving folks a defined initial season.
- Prioritize discipleship and mission: While praying with our church plant’s co-leaders this summer, Nicole shared a quote she’d read: “If you aim for the kingdom, you always get the church. But if you aim for the church, you don’t always get the kingdom.” Sure, organizational realities need to be put into place (see priority #5). But our work is making and maturing disciples; Jesus’ work is building His church. Church planting is for mission; it’s not the mission. Prioritize relationships and build the organization around those. Aim for the Kingdom.
- Create policies: Every church is fragile, but plants feel fragile. Every leader is tempted, but especially in your church’s early days, when you feel alone and have less accountability, things hide easier. Create basic policies to protect yourself and your young church. Multiple people must count money. A safety process must be in place for anyone — anyone! — who’s ever with kids. Honor your government’s legal (and tax) processes and designations.
- Cast and model your vision: One thing we emphasize most in training church planters is the need to both cast and model your vision: people love to rally around a compelling future—but there’s an expiration date if their experience of your culture doesn’t fit the vision you cast. Be honest (example: we talked about being a one-, six-, then eleven-year-old church at various points in our last plant, and explained that we were developing like a one-, six-, or eleven-year-old child would). But model discipleship, mission, and your values and priorities even before you ask for a commitment. And invite them to help own pieces of vision and shape that culture.
Bonus: Pray—a lot more. You may roll your eyes, but I literally cannot emphasize this enough: as you lead your church, stop, listen, and pray. About every step, about every decision, about every potential leader, about everything that frustrates you or causes you to question, and about every opportunity that comes your way. Seek God and His wisdom, even if something seems slower or different than you’d plan, or even illogical. Pray, pray, pray more.
Start with the “Why,” Not the “What”
You’ll notice that this list of priorities lacks things like, “Plan Year One sermon series,” “Set up social media and create a website, and edit it 10 times,” and “Hang flyers on neighbors’ doors.” Some of those things may fit your specific context, stage, and church culture, and various planters are welcome to add to this list of priorities. You also might need to raise funds, find a facility to meet, or a dozen other things.
But also, you might not—or, you might not need to do things first. If you’ve planted a church based on prayer, mission, relationship, and discipleship during COVID, why would you replace those things with strategy, recruiting, structure, and content as one of your first moves?
To be clear, this list of priorities is not a hard and fast rule. Rather, it’s an invitation—an opportunity to consider the “why” behind what you’re doing and the “who” you feel like God wants your church to be, rather than to slip thoughtlessly into “what” you perceive churches to just do. The next post gets into a few more things you should NOT do, but my prayer as I write this is that—even though some of these things might seem counter-cultural—God would lead you to His priorities for His church.
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